The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 2

Consciousness - 2.3.10 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


3. Sir William Hamilton and his Critics

[10] Samuel Alexander gives an analysis of consciousness that is very much in the spirit of the present undertaking. 42 He comes closer than any of the philosophers so far mentioned to giving a satisfactory account of the experiential basis of our native knowledge of ourselves. Not only does his account give us some insight into this native knowledge of the self, but it also is praiseworthy for its attempt to analyse consciousness in terms other than the distinction between subject and object. If, after all, what we are trying to comprehend is the manner in which consciousness posits subject over against object, it is unhelpful to be just informed that it evident1y does so. For this reason an analysis of consciousness that describes its inner articulation in some other terms seems to be the more philosophical alternative.

Alexander analysed an experience into two elements which he called 'an act of nund' and 'the appearance of a thing'. The two elements are further characterized as follows: 'The act of mind is an enjoyment, the object is contemplated.' He also asks us to view an experience as an experienceing and an experienceed. The relation between these two elements is said to be one of 'togetherness' or 'compresence'. One of Alexander's central ideas is that minds themselves are never contemplated, they are never their own objects of knowledge. In his own words, 'my own mind is never an object to myself in the sense in which the tree or table is'. However, minds and objects 'are distinct and relatively independent existences compresent with each other'. To complete the picture it only needs to be added that Alexander identifies minds with selves. 'I am my mind,' he states, 'and am conscious of the object.' On this view the self is a component of experience - it is the enjoying -and it is experiential through and through despite the fact that it is never itself an object of experience. Alexander could thus have said in reply to Hume that the self cannot be its own object of experience, but nevertheless it is experienced in every experience of objects (as the enjoying of the experience). On Alexander's theory the experience of being a self would consist in our enjoying of our experiences. Looked at in this way MacNabb's description of the self as an experience of a peculiarly internal sort could be construed as a misleading description of the experiential self. It would in effect be to confuse the enjoying of an experience with an experience of enjoyment. Alexander's theory has the great merit of bringing us the insight that to claim that the self is experiential is

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not incompatible with the claim that there is no special experience of the self, alongside of other experiences, but different from them. His view helps us to appreciate that having an experience of being a self is not some experience the self has in addition to its other experiences. Having an experience of being a self accompanies every experience, just as the enjoying of an experience, for Alexander accompanies every experience. To put the matter in Rylean terms it cannot be asked of the experience of being a self, as it can of experiences in general, 'When did you have that experience?' 'How often have you had it?' 'In what circumstances do you obtain it?' Unlike experiences of which such questions may meaningfully be raised, the experience of being a self is pervasive in the sense that it is actual all the while one is having such datable experiences.

Since I shall not build on Alexander's idea I shall not offer a critique of it. I mention it as an interesting proposal in the right direction. It does, however, still suffer from the weakness we found in the earlier accounts of the deliverances of consciousness: namely, that no evidence can be offered in favour of the claim that each experience has the two aspects described by Alexander. Thus even if he is right he is powerless to answer an opponent who denies his distinction. Furthermore there is a troublesome ambiguity in Alexander's use of the term *experience'. If experience is broken down into an experienceing and an experienceed, the experienced is susceptible of interpretation as either (a) the content of the experience, or (b) the object independent of the experience. If we take Alexander to mean (a), then his theory is open to the objection that it is by no means clear that enjoying an experience is anything over and above the having of the content of the experience. If we take him to mean (b), then the experience can only be the enjoying of it. On both interpretations, therefore, there is a danger of the two aspects of experience collapsing into each other. Should that happen, Alexander could not claim to have arrived at a position any different from the orthodox Serial Theorist.

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Footnotes

42. S. Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity (London, 1920), p.11 ff.]
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